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The Isle of Sheppey is an island off the northern coast of Kent, England. It covers around 90 km2 of open marshes, rolling grasslands, and breach strewn coast. Set against a backdrop of heavy industry lining the Thames Estuary, and a short drive away from London’s bustling metropolis, Sheppey is a green oasis home to two national nature reserves: Elmley and Swale. These predominantly wetland habitats support an enormous range of birds and are famous for their large numbers of marsh harriers and short-eared owls, as well as wetland birds such as avocets, terns, grebes, cormorants, herons, geese, and oystercatchers. Beyond the marshes, the sandy coastline is home to both grey and harbour seals. Sheppey even has an established scorpion population – which have been resident since the 1860s when they were imported on a visiting ship!
Average rating: 4.0 (very good)
Average cost: the island itself is free to visit, as is the remote and wild Swale Nature Reserve. Elmley is slightly more developed, with a cafe and accommodation. Day tickets to the Elmley cost around $8 while guided tours cost between $35 and $62.
Best time to visit: you can visit the island year-round, with the best weather being May to October.
How to get there: you can get a train to Sheerness-on-Sea station although the best way to access the nature reserves is via car. Sheppey itself is a short drive from London (around 1.5 hours). You can arrange boat trips to see the seals from the nearby town of Whistable.
Typical activities: bird watching, boat trip
Number of reports: 2
Last update: 2021
WILDLIFE IN Sheppey
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen here are:
Avocet – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Avocets became extinct in the UK in the 1840s thanks to egg collectors and taxidermists. However, in the Second World War, a bomb blew a hole in the sea wall at Havergate Island, just along the coast from the RSPB’s Minsmere Reserve. As the tidal river flooded in, it created the perfect conditions for this beautiful bird. Thanks to this and ongoing conservation efforts, they can now be seen in the East and South West of England. They have even become the logo for the RSPB following their successful recolonisation of the UK.
The Isle of Sheppy supports a good population of nesting avocets. They stand out from other birds due to their upturned bills, striking black and white colouring, and long blue legs – with Chris Packham calling them the ‘Audrey Hepburn of birds‘. Avocets can be found nesting in groups on islands in Elmley Nature Reserve or leading their young chicks to shallow, muddy water.
Grey seal – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The UK’s coastline is an important breeding ground for seals, providing a home to over 50% of the world’s Atlantic grey seals. Despite being a busy shipping lane, the Thames Estuary supports around 900 grey and harbour seals, with the number of grey seals on the increase. The best place to see them is on one of the seal-watching boats leaving from Whistable or Queenborough. During high tide, they are most likely to be spotted swimming and bobbing around the shoreline looking for food or playing. During low tide, it’ll be hard to miss them lounging and basking on the sandbanks dotting the island.
Harbour seal – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Alongside the greys, Sheppey is also home to harbour seals. Surveys suggest that harbour seals are more prevalent than greys, with a population of around 40 living on the island year-round. Again, the best way to see these lovely creatures is to hope aboard one of the seal-watching boats. They can be distinguished from grey seals by the unique V-shape of their nostrils. They are also much smaller than the larger greys. There’s a nice guide to help you tell them apart here. Interestingly, harbour seals are usually a light brown/grey colour, however, in the Thames Estuary, they can be bright orange, as their fur is died by the iron-rich mud.
Marsh harrier – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
One of Sheppey’s main draws from a wildlife watching perspective is the large number of raptors, with marsh harriers being one of the stars. One survey of marsh harrier numbers recorded an incredible 180 birds on the island! They are easily spotted year-round on the drive into Elmley Nature Reserve where they circle the skies over the reedbeds. Another great spot to look out for them is Capel Fleet or ‘raptor mound’. This vantage point gives sweeping views across the island and is claimed to be the best place in Britain to see birds of prey.
Short-eared owl – 0% OF Wildside users (0/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
common tern – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Great crested grebe – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Great cormorant – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Grey heron – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Greylag goose – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Oystercatcher – 50% OF Wildside users (1/2) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Photo credit: WildSide team member Chris White